President Nugent's Opening Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2009
The Provost has spoken eloquently about making a start, about beginnings. He and I often constitute a sort of tag-team, and I have chosen today to say a word about ends. I am using the word "end," however, not so much in a temporal sense (like "the end of the day" or "the end of an era") but rather in the sense of a goal or objective (as in "the ends we are seeking," "the means to an end"). Those of you who know classical Greek, or perhaps are moral philosophers--or both--will recognize that I have in mind the Greek term, telos. And, indeed, it is the Greek philosophers who, at least in the Western tradition, first schooled us always to consider the telos. What are appropriate ends for us to seek: in an action, in our relationships with others, in our lives.
Probably no one exemplifies this unremitting attention to the ends that we pursue in our lives more than that old trouble-maker, Socrates. You will all recall his most famous formulation: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I will return to this in a few moments. Often coupled with Socrates' well known dictum is another saying that was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: that disarmingly simple injunction "Know thyself." For 25 centuries, these two Greek formulations together have stood as a kind of ethical "true north," providing both a moral grounding and a source of inspiration. Probably nowhere have they been more influential than in the academy, and especially with those of us dedicated to the liberal arts. It should come as no surprise, then, that Kenyon as a college strives to practice self-examination and to achieve self-understanding.
Now, it occurs to me that, as a student entering Kenyon today--or, indeed, as a parent or guardian preparing soon to leave your son or daughter behind on the hill--you're probably wishing pretty powerfully (whether at a conscious or an unconscious level) that you knew a bit more about this place! ("What have I done?" may be a refrain coursing through more than one mind as we sit here today. Of course, some others may be thinking: "My mind is made up; don't bother me with the facts"--so I beg your indulgence in what follows of the facts.) I want to discuss with you some of what we as a College have examined, some of what we do know about ourselves. Please bear with me; this will come first in that most soporific of forms: bits of data. But, trust me, I am after all a humanist, and so the urge will be irresistible to move from data to reflection. I hope that both will be of interest to you.
Last year, Kenyon participated in two national research projects. One is a survey of students and the other a survey of faculty members. Each of these helps us to understand ourselves more fully--and, because they are indeed national efforts, to see ourselves in relation to others.
The first is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This is a relatively new development in higher education; it originated only 6 years ago, but has gained wide acceptance as an instrument that measures factors much more meaningful to a student's education than those which form the basis for the U.S. News and World Report rankings. This year, about 660,000 students participated in the survey, including Kenyon students for the first time. The second survey is the Faculty Survey of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), based at the UCLA Graduate School of Education. This instrument has been administered since 1989, and approximately 300,000 faculty members have participated in it. Kenyon had not participated for about a decade.
These processes of self-examination provided us with, literally, hundreds of items of data. Today, I'm going to single out just a handful of items about students and about faculty that seem to me especially relevant to the experience that lies before you at Kenyon as members of the Class of 2009--What's it like to be here? What will be expected of you? What can you expect to gain from your time here?
I'll turn first to the National Survey of Student Engagement ("Nessie"). Of the dozens of items of information, there were 3 types of response that I found particularly interesting for Kenyon. These are all instances where Kenyon scored appreciably and significantly higher than other colleges in America (and remember, about 600 colleges participated in the survey this year). As I said, I want to focus on three major areas: the first is responses from freshman about how they were learning at Kenyon. On the survey, respondents react to a number of statements. Here is a small sample of 5 statements with which Kenyon freshmen agreed especially strongly.
Discussed ideas from classes and readings with others (e.g., family members) outside of class.
Kenyon: 3.2 other 2.7 (.55)
Hello, parents and other family members—this means YOU! Now, of course this item also refers to conversations with fellow students and with faculty. But don't be at all surprised if your son or daughter calls to talk with you about ideas raised in the "Quest for Justice" course, or to tell how cool Chinese is, or to ask what you really think about stem-cell research.
Had serious conversations with students very different from you (e.g., in religion, political views, personal values, etc.)
Kenyon: 3.3 other 2.7 (.58)
At Kenyon, we believe that encountering and discussing views that may be different from the "default settings" with which you arrived at College makes a substantial contribution to learning. We were very pleased to see that this is indeed our students' experience.
Learned something that changed the way you understand an issue or concept
Kenyon: 3.1 other 2.8 (.37)
Well, this is the heart of the matter, isn't it? The wonderful and also scary thing about College is that it will indeed change you in some ways. If you leave Kenyon exactly as you arrived, we will all have missed an opportunity.
Relationship with faculty members
Kenyon: 5.8 other 5.3 (.41)
This is something we have been talking about a good deal over the past year. Kenyon is embarking on a major capital campaign. And, to prepare for that process, we are naturally going out and talking with our alumni in a very active and broad effort. Those conversations have been wonderful--alumni are tremendously supportive of Kenyon and committed to the College's future.
And here's why: time and time again, from alumni of all generations, of all genders, of all stripes, we hear one thing: Something special happened to them at Kenyon. And it had to do with their personal relationships to faculty. There is no single factor that stands out more in a Kenyon education. Lots of places SAY they provide that student/ faculty contact; Kenyon really DOES it.
Providing the support you need to help you succeed academically
Kenyon: 3.4 others 3.0 (.48)
Okay, first-years: take note. You CAN succeed here; we will HELP you! Again, the relationships with faculty are absolutely key. Faculty take their advising roles very seriously. Dean Martindell and her colleagues on the Academic Advising team are also an unbelievably dedicated, knowledgeable, and sensitive resource. Our student responses on this tell us that we are very considerably outdistancing other colleges in providing our students with the support they need to succeed.
What I've been describing up to now are responses about Kenyon from first-year students. I want to turn very briefly to a couple of responses from seniors, on items that I think are more appropriately evaluated at the end, rather than the beginning of a college career. What, after all, does it all add up to? We know that you--students and parents--are focused on this (as you should be). So what can we tell you about what happens at Kenyon? In this instance, I'm just going to briefly mention three topics on which Kenyon seniors rated their experience significantly higher than did their peers at other colleges:
Thinking critically and analytically
Kenyon: 3.7 others 3.3 (.51)
Writing clearly and effectively
Kenyon: 3.6 others 3.1 (.54)
Learning effectively on your own
Kenyon: 3.4 others 3.0 (.45)
I'll tell you that we see this as very good news. These goals--clear, analytical thinking; excellent writing skills; and the ability to be a self-motivated, lifelong learner--are exactly what we hope that a Kenyon education will accomplish. Frankly, we have lots of information from alumni that tells us Kenyon does just that. But it is also heartening to learn that, even as seniors, Kenyon students can see that their education has been exemplary in these specific areas.
Now, I'm going to touch upon a third area of Kenyon's "self-knowledge" which--for some members of the Class of 2009--may come under the heading of "be careful what you ask for." This has to do with our expectations of our students. The single greatest discrepancy between Kenyon and other colleges is in our expectation for students to read. Following close behind that is the writing of papers and reports that we require. And also high is the time that students spend preparing for class.
I have to tell you, this sounds to me like good news. Since I came to Kenyon 3 years ago, over and over I have found myself in contexts where I say with pride: "We really ARE what we say we are." And the data on our expectations of students seem to me to confirm that. Members of the Class of 2009, we know who you are! You came here because it would challenge you, because you would grow--you've come to the right place!
Amount of reading
Kenyon: 4.3 other: 3.3 (1.08)
Numbers of papers or reports
Kenyon: 2.95 other: 2.39 (.64)
Preparing for class
Kenyon: 5.0 other: 4.0 (.58)
Now, much more briefly, I want to turn to a very few items from our survey of faculty, because I think, again, they provide an extremely clear self-conception of who we are and what we value at Kenyon. Again, I will focus on three areas of our information from the HERI survey.
The first is a series of questions which asked faculty members to identify what they felt to be the most significant goals of college education. Kenyon's results are, I think, quite striking: 100% of our faculty said "develop the ability to think critically" and 99% said "promote the ability to write effectively."
I think it may also be interesting for you to have some idea of the self-conception of the institution that was revealed by faculty responses. Here's a juxtaposition which I found particularly telling: Asked to identify what they felt was a "high priority of the institution;" 99% of our faculty said "promote the intellectual development of students." At an opposite extreme, only 25 % said they felt hiring faculty "stars" was a priority.
Finally, in my mind the most significant data of all had to do with our faculty members' self-evaluation of their "job satisfaction" at Kenyon. What makes these particular responses especially meaningful, I think, is the comparative data that the survey can provide. (And I would note that more than 15,000 faculty from private, 4-year colleges participated in the survey.) Asked to identify what contributed to their job satisfaction, 92% of Kenyon faculty said "the competency of their colleagues." (By contrast, the figure at other schools was 81%.) A nd the most extraordinary figure of all: 90% of Kenyon faculty said the quality of our students was a major component of their job satisfaction. Let me put that into perspective; at other institutions, only 56% of faculty indicated this kind of satisfaction in the quality of students.
I have to repeat that final figure. 90% of our faculty feel that the quality of our students is a major component of their satisfaction in their work--compared to 56% at other colleges. That's astounding. That's amazing. That's what makes Kenyon very special.
For members of the Class of 2009, the data seem to me very clear: we will expect a great deal of you. And you can and will rise to that challenge.
Now, enough of data! I promised that I would turn back to reflection--and, indeed, reflection on "the ends" of things. And to do that, I want to turn back to our friend, Socrates.
When Socrates opined that the unexamined life was not worth living, it was in fact at the end of his life. Unfortunately, as you know, Socrates' fellow Athenians found it so unsettling and annoying to have this paragon of virtue living in their midst that they sentenced him to death. A bad end, some might say. But Socrates thinks not. To him, it would literally be a fate far worse than death to live that "unexamined life." What does Socrates have in mind by the "examined life?" Well, I'm sure it's not a narcissistic self-absorption, but rather a constant alertness to the ends we are seeking. Are they selfish or altruistic, trivial or lofty, base or noble?
In fact, Socrates makes clear, at Apology 38A, what he means; he says to the jury: "...I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living..." And what are those other subjects that Socrates discusses? What is the nature of...justice, beauty, truth, the governance of a good state, the good life. These are not easy topics; even Socrates often fails to come to a satisfactory answer about them. But I believe it is a bedrock of liberal education to believe, like him, that these are questions we must continually ask, if we are ever to come to "a good end." That is our mission here, seeking ends that may be elusive but must be pursued. And so, I would end with this: To lead the "examined life" to which Socrates calls us, it may be nice to have data about your means, but it is much more important to dream of greater ends.